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Spotlight on: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson

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Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories

This is a story collection that, if you're a horror fan like myself, you'll definitely want to check out. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a collection of early stories by Richard Matheson chosen by the author himself. Fans of the Twilight Zone may recall that the title story was adapted twice under the TZ heading: once on the television series -- starring William Shatner in the main role -- and once for Twilight Zone: the Movie -- with John Lithgow playing the terrified airplane passenger. In fact, Matheson was one of the three main writers for the show (only Charles Beaumont and creator Rod Serling equal his prolific production). Personally, I think both versions have something to offer viewers, but Matheson's prose version is infinitely better. (Of course, we all know that the book is always better than the movie, don't we?)

For others who may be unfamiliar with the Matheson moniker, the following books have been the source of popular films: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Somewhere in Time, A Stir of Echoes, and What Dreams May Come (but don't hold that one against him). As well, he wrote some great TV movies: Duel, directed by then-little-known Steven Spielberg, and two starring the character of Carl Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which were the inspirations for the series. He has also won the World Fantasy Convention's award for Lifetime Achievement in addition to many other awards. Just consider what author Stephen King says about Matheson in his introduction to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: "When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley's mother."

And Matheson returns the compliment in his dedication: "To Stephen King, with much admiration for taking the ball and running with it all the way." But enough back scratching, let's get down to the stories. This is a stunning collection. There's not a bad one in the bunch, although a few are flawed. Got time for a rundown? I'll try to be brief:

  • Introduction -- Stephen King praises Matheson profusely but intelligently.
  • "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" -- Title story, like I said above, from the Twilight Zone.
  • "Dress of White Silk" -- A little girl gets in trouble for wearing her mother's dress. This is a masterpiece of understatement and probably the best story in the book. The last line will floor you.
  • "Blood Son" -- A young boy becomes obsessed with the idea of being a vampire. This story seemed good at the time, but not much of it has stayed with me.
  • "Through Channels" -- I had to look this one up again, as the title has little or nothing to do with the plot. Police question a boy about a mysterious event that is revealed throughout the story. Another good shock ending.
  • "Witch War" -- Teenage girl witches are used to wage war on the enemy. Not terrific, but certainly readable.
  • "Mad House" -- One of the two longer pieces, it is a portrait of how anger never really goes away, but remains in your surroundings long after. The protagonist's anger is so realistic here that I felt uncomfortable long after finishing the story.
  • "Disappearing Act" -- A journal is found in a bar. This story is its contents. A really good story of fear and helplessness.
  • "Legion of Plotters" -- Do you think they are out to get you? Matheson makes it easy to believe that they actually are.
  • "Long Distance Call" -- An invalid lady receives strange telephone calls. The resolution is shudder-inducing.
  • "Slaughter House" -- This other long piece tells of two brothers who buy a haunted house. I am constantly amazed at what writers can do with the old "haunted house" motif, and Matheson is no exception. Well-written and very unnerving, especially when the brothers' relationship starts breaking down.
  • "Wet Straw" -- After his wife's death, a man finds himself surrounded by the smell of wet straw, the meaning of which soon becomes clearer. Very good use of words.
  • "Dance of the Dead" -- Three friends take a girl to a different sort of nightclub and the titular stage show. Although, I didn't have any trouble finishing it, I would have to say that this is the least of the stories in this collection. Nothing in it surprised me.
  • "The Children of Noah" -- A wonderfully creepy tale (originally published in a mystery magazine!) that reminds us not to speed through a small town in the middle of the night.
  • "The Holiday Man" -- Ever wonder where the news media gets the holiday-weekend death statistics they are always spouting? Matheson knows and expresses the source's feelings with relish.
  • "Old Haunts" -- Matheson's version of "you can't go home again." Not great.
  • "The Distributor" -- A delightfully wicked (one may even say Roald Dahl-ian) tale of a new neighbor who is nothing but trouble. One of my favorites in this collection.
  • "Crickets" -- What exactly are crickets saying to one another? This is a difficult one to critique, because I didn't like the way it came together, but it was the only way.
  • "First Anniversary" -- A husband finds he is losing his senses, but only in regard to his wife. A strange beginning gives way to an even stranger ending.
  • "The Likeness of Julie" -- Racy little tale of sexual obsession. Seemed out of place to have such a sexually-oriented piece in with the others, but in the end it fit perfectly.
  • "Prey" -- A woman's Zuni warrior doll wreaks havoc. "Prey" has been adapted several times for TV/movie anthologies and it is a very visually-oriented story. A good ender to this collection.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in the column The Book of Tales on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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